On the plane ride into Colorado, as Monday evening segued into Tuesday morning, Ned Yost celebrated his 60th birthday. His team arrived at its hotel at 2 a.m. He awoke the next morning still the steward of a first-place club and a manager suddenly incapable of missteps.
He crafted his Royals lineup for a 7-4 victory over the Rockies as if it were any other day. He activated Salvador Perez, even though Perez hurt his knee the night before. He started Mike Moustakas, despite the presence of a left-handed starter for Colorado. And ignoring evidence of a horrific slump, he stuck with Omar Infante as his No. 2 hitter, convinced the simplicity of his swing would allow for a breakthrough.
“He can get on a streak,” Yost said, “in a hurry.”
The latest contributor to the nightly string of Royals heroics had batted .190 since the All-Star break. Infante had hit .182 in August. Yet he still occupied premium real estate in the lineup, siphoning at-bats from Perez, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
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In the seventh inning on Tuesday, the team appeared on the verge of paying for Yost’s obstinacy. Infante stepped to the plate with a pair of runners aboard and two outs. The team trailed by one. He had two hits already on the evening, but only one in four games this weekend in Minneapolis, part of a “terrible series,” he said.
What followed, of course, must feel familiar for those following this sun-kissed season. Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino fired a 98-mph fastball. Infante lunged and flicked his bat across the plate. The baseball brushed the inside of the right-field line to score both runners.
When Perez dunked an RBI double in center, a “Let’s go Royals!” chant erupted from the sizable pack of Royals partisans at Coors Field. The chant erupted again in the eighth when Infante smacked his third double of the game. He plated two more runs with this hit. He matched a career-high with a trio of doubles. The four RBIs pushed his season total to a career-high 57.
“I keep working on my swing, my timing,” Infante said. “Sometimes my timing is bad. Sometimes it’s good. A good day for me, nice for the team.”
The group of out-of-town fans massed behind the Kansas City dugout and celebrated the team’s fourth victory in five games on this road trip. The Royals (70-55) have won 22 of their last 27 games. They can exact a two-game sweep on Wednesday to gather their ninth series victory in a row.
Until the seventh, the outcome appeared in doubt. James Shields (12-6, 3.28 ERA) danced around nine hits. He held the Rockies to a pair of runs in six innings.
“It was a grind day,” Shields said. “It was one of those days where I didn’t really have my good stuff at all.”
Colorado attacked Shields from the jump. Charlie Blackmon led off with a single, and Drew Stubbs smashed a grounder that spun out of Infante’s glove. Blackmon took third. He scored on a double play.
Shields opposed Tyler Matzek, a 2009 first-round pick suffering through a trying season at Coors Field. At the start on Tuesday, Matzek reminded why he was once the No. 11 pick. The first ball the Royals hit in the air was a harmless infield fly lofted by Perez in the fourth.
The spell broke later that frame. Butler let a series of fastballs miss and took a walk. With two outs, Cain sliced a liner into right-center field. Butler began to rumble. He ran with abandon but little speed. He was at third base when center fielder Drew Stubbs relayed the ball to second baseman D.J. LeMahieu.
Third-base coach Mike Jirschele sent Butler home. The throw drew catcher Michael McKenry up the third-base line. He dropped the baseball as he reached for the tag. Butler side-stepped the catcher’s bulk and flopped his left arm across the plate. The altitude left him winded.
“I was just sitting there saying, ‘Man, is my heart rate ever going to come down?’” he said. “Granted, going from first to home, I haven’t done that too many times.”
Aggression looks silly when it fails. The Royals suffered the flip side of the coin in the fifth. Perez came to bat with two outs and two on. For some reason, Nori Aoki chose this moment to steal third. After a replay review, he was ruled out, and the rally fizzled before Perez even swung.
Shields was pitching in this park for the second time in his career. He became familiar with the thin air and spacious outfield of Coors Field one June night in 2007. The Rockies pounded him for five runs.
In the fifth inning on Tuesday, he watched Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado punish a curveball. The ball carried and carried before it cleared the fence in left-center field to put Colorado back in front.
“I think it probably would have ended up being a ball, to be honest with you,” Shields said. “He just ended up getting a good swing.”
Shields stood in the on-deck circle in the seventh inning. With two outs, Yost removed him and inserted Josh Willingham. He rolled a single up the middle past Matzek. Aoki kept the rally alive with a walk. Then it was up to Infante, the slump-ridden second baseman, and the man who rewarded the birthday boy for his faith.
In the aftermath, Yost settled into his office chair to speak with reporters. Midway through his first answer, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz burst in armed with a chocolate cake. He serenaded Yost with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“You see what I have to put up?” Yost said. Then he stood up and hugged Kuntz. When Yost finished with reporters, he commandeered the cake and steered himself toward the clubhouse. Kuntz stopped him en route, and motioned toward the coaches’ room.
“Hell no!” Kuntz said. “It starts in here first.”